Over Exposure

Beniamino Barrese, The Disappearance of My Mother, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 94 minutes.

BENEDETTA BARZINI IS STANDING OVER THE SINK of her cluttered Milan apartment, gulping down a couple of pills. Now in her mid-seventies, she is the subject—no, the hero, the raison d’être—of The Disappearance of My Mother, a remarkably enthralling documentary by Beniamino Barrese, the youngest of her four children. The pill-taking occurs not quite midway through the film, and it is heart-dropping. Not because I identified with Barrese, though, whose obsession with keeping his mother with him forever inspired this intimate depiction of a mother-son dyad, along with Barzini’s crucially reluctant cooperation. She must have intuited that allowing her son to make a film on which he could build a career was the best gift she could give him. And although it’s impossible to watch even five minutes of their collaboration without understanding how bereft Barrese will be when his mother “disappears,” when I saw Barzini take her medication I was anxious not because I identified with her son’s sense of future loss but because, after watching her on film for only a few minutes, I felt her vulnerability as my own and knew absolutely that I would miss her presence in the world, which right now is desperately in need of her convictions as well as the combination of gravity and irony with which she makes them understood.

Her desire to disappear began when she was quite young. In her teenage diary, Barzini wrote that her mother, who came from a fabulously wealthy Italian family, cared only about money and saw her daughter’s beauty as a commodity. Out of spite, Barzini stopped eating. As her anorexia progressed, she found pleasure in watching her body vanish. That body, thin and athletic, and her strong-boned, perfectly proportioned face made her a “supermodel” in the mid-’60s, the first Italian “girl” on the cover of American Vogue, and, a few years later, she was included in Harper’s Bazaar’s “100 Most Beautiful Women in the World” issue. Barrese works his mother’s American years into the film with fashion photos and moving-image clips, some from the underground film archives of Taylor Meade and Andy Warhol. The Warhol “stilly” of Barzini sitting next to Marcel Duchamp, both of them casually enigmatic as they share a cigar, is a hoot, and an exemplary staging of the intersection of art and fashion history, a subject Barzini taught from a radical feminist perspective after her return to Italy, where she married twice, reared four children, and, in addition to teaching, marching, and speaking her feminism, continued to model off and on to put food on the table. Of her supermodel days, she says that the images are not of her but of a character in crazy clothes and crazy makeup. She tells the young women in her classes that ideal beauty is the trap in which the patriarchy imprisons women. She shows them photos of Antonello da Messina’s painting of the Virgin Mary with a book, “the only Virgin who reads”; an African woman with a baby at her breast, meant as a universal message that motherhood is a woman’s most important role in life; a model wrapped around a tree, her body covered with leaves and her feet shod in plastic flip-flops, part of an advertising campaign that employs the pillar of patriarchal ideology—woman = nature—to sell chemicals that are destroying the planet. She understands contradictions and works them as well. She can still rock a runway, as when, at age seventy-three, she walked a Simone Rocha show in a floor-length, full-skirted black embroidered dress, marshalling a concentration that models a third of her age will never achieve.

And yet Barzini wants nothing but to disappear, to remove herself from the eyes and expectations of others. For her entire life, she tells her son, she did what others required of her. In the years she has left, she wants to vanish, without a phone, credit cards, bank accounts, cameras, to find somewhere that is beyond the grasp of white male power, which “makes her ashamed to be of the same race.” “The work we are doing together is one of separation,” she tells him as he pursues her with his camera, day and night, around her apartment and her beautiful house in Livorno, which, despite being a packrat, she has almost emptied. “I want nothing to do with images, and they are everything to you,” she says. Conflict is, of course, the motor of movies. Barzini allows her son to film her even as she tells him that his images are of no value to neither her nor him. because rather than aid memory, images destroy it. The argument can never be resolved. Instead, mother and son wrangle with it, tenderly, intimately, with bursts of irritation that are also the expression of a love that we who watch may well envy.

The Disappearance of My Mother is currently screening at Quad Cinema in New York.